One of the questions that preachers of a generation ago almost never had to face was how to preach to a multifaith or inter-religious audience. But that scenario is increasingly common in our 21st-century world of many faiths and cultures.
I’ve been struck, for instance, by how much more my children know about the world’s different faith traditions than I do. While I took a college course on world religions, that was a long time ago and largely — pardon the pun — academic, my children have friends whose families belong to many different religious traditions.
For example, a few years ago my daughter explained to me some of the Muslim customs around women’s dress as one of her teammates on her fifth-grade basketball team could not wear the prescribed uniform.
So what happens when this particular friend sleeps over on a Saturday night and goes with us the next day to church? Or as more of our children bring friends home from college, or date and marry people of other faiths (or no particular faith)?
How do we preach to an increasingly pluralistic world?
While this may not have been a significant question for preachers in recent generations, it was a very important question in the first several centuries of Christianity when the Christian faith lived, and eventually flourished, in a similarly pluralistic age.
By looking at the examples of preachers from the earliest portions of the church’s history, we may glean some wisdom for navigating the way in front of us. In particular, I think there are three lessons we might take to heart:
1) Comparisons are the stock and trade of preachers and teachers of the faith. Notice how often the Apostle Paul employs comparisons in making the “mysteries” of the Christian faith more clear. Resurrection, for instance, is like the full plant that grows from the bare seed sown (1 Corinthians 15:35-44). Resurrection is not, finally, simply the growth of grain from a seed, but it is enough like that that Paul can use this metaphor to help those more familiar with agrarian culture or fertility cults.
Similarly, our bodies are not just “clay jars” bearing the treasure of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7), but for those who formerly bore offerings in such jars that image would resonate and help explain the relationship of our mortal lives and work with the eternal gift of the gospel. Indeed, the term “mystery” itself is an intentional “borrowing” that Paul makes from the mystery cults from which many of Paul’s congregants came.
We can do the same today, comparing elements of the Christian faith to the various secular and religious traditions that surround us. We need to exercise some care in doing so. “Heaven” and “Nirvana,” for instance, are not simply two terms for the same thing. They represent different realities, but our goal is not translation (A=B), but rather comparison (A is like B, though also different). By paying attention to the cultural and religious currents of our age we may draw out important implications of Christian doctrine and practice.
2) Teaching is everything. A generation of preachers in mainline traditions steered clear of “didactic” sermons because they wanted to emphasize that Christianity is not merely a “head game” and make explicit the emotional and existential elements of the faith.
That served very well, particularly when congregants knew the Christian faith. When more and more of those in attendance do not know even the basics, however, we need to make much more room in our sermons to explain what we believe, what we are doing, and why we are doing it. As I’ve taken more time to do that in my own preaching, I’ve been struck by how many people who grew up in the church find that kind of instruction helpful.
A generation ago, and living in a nominally Christian culture, we assumed everyone knew the faith and took few pains to teach it. We can make that assumption no longer.
3) Be aware of the multiple “congregations” that are in attendance each week. Some are very familiar with the faith in general and the history of this congregation in particular. Others are relatively new. One way to overcome the natural fear that we will always be preaching “over the heads” of those who are new or “boring” those who know the faith better is to address those particular segments of the congregation directly.
In all these ways and more, we may find the challenges of our age not daunting but challenging, an opportunity to be embraced with the confidence of the gospel.
David Lose is the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in biblical preaching at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. He is also the author of “Making Sense of Scripture” (2009), a book that helps everyday Christians read the Bible with greater understanding and enjoyment, and “Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World” (2003), which was named one of the “Top 10 Books of 2004” by the Academy of Parish Clergy.